Soccer in America sits a nudge’s length away from the all-encompassing embrace of national popularity. In fact, it has felt this way for a while. Of this holding pattern, the Men in Blazers jokingly refer to soccer as America’s sport of the future since 1972. Yet, with every series of international friendlies and every major tournament, a tantalizingly new nudge comes along, daring soccer and America ever closer toward the edge. But, rather than linearly move forward, the tango between soccer and the U.S. more closely resembles the impossible dichotomy from Zeno’s paradoxes. Understandably, most American soccer enthusiasts are frustrated by soccer’s comparatively sluggish rise. However, I would caution against the darkness that lurks on the other side of the event horizon: pundits.
With event horizons, come black holes. And if you don’t know, black holes are mind-meltingly huge galactic forces of doom and destruction. Does that sound fun to you? In comparison, when a thing achieves the form of superficial success that renders it a part of the public consciousness, there is a segment of people who literally make a living from picking that thing to shreds and incessantly squawking on and on about said shreds. Armed with a bottomless supply of misinformed, reactionary, and downright inane statements, opinions, and calls to action, these men and women proudly wear their neatly tailored name brand uniforms as they bravely receive the last fine touches of blush to their perfectly curated faces. Okay, maybe it’s not as scary as slowly contemplating the demise of one’s own existence when staring down the center of a black hole, but these large-mouthed, slimy babblers are not unlike the scary extraterrestrial beings that many a child theorizes roams the hollows of the universe.
Truly though, pundits are not really that bad, I guess. Just as some can be bad, some can be decent and some can be terrible. And the terrible ones are the real moneymakers. They say terrible things that people agree are terrible things and then the same people watch the next day just to make sure they are still being terrible and saying terrible things, which they then all debate and agree are terrible things. Decent pundits, on the other hand, offer interesting commentary and uncommon insight. It is when pundits take themselves more seriously than the competencies for their job that things get ridiculous.
While the emanations of infuriating soccer pundits (and journalist hacks) are all the rage in Europe and Latin America, a wonderful silence broadcasts through the corresponding airwaves in the USA, something which I had taken for granted as part of my love of soccer–and also something that was brought to my attention by the recent comments of American sports commentator Colin Cowherd. In recent years, Cowherd has made public his gradually rising enthusiasm for soccer. And in the wake of the Copa America Centenário, Cowherd has put forth an interesting take on the media’s role regarding the USMNT:
In Argentina and Brazil, in Colombia, in Spain, they’re rough on the players- sort of like we are on LeBron and Steph Curry…They create massive pressure…If Messi has a bad game, he’ll be criticized. Their talk radio? They’ll beat up on the players and the coach. We don’t. Our suburban soccer players? ‘There all super-duper.’ We give them pats on the back, foot rubs, and orange slices… Why does nobody criticize our players and hold them to the same standard we hold Tom Brady to?… We don’t hold our players accountable. We don’t put pressure on them.
In notable contrast, during an interview with soccer writer Grant Wahl, and in defense of Jürgen Klinsmann, Cowherd also had this to say:
…We are not defined [by soccer] like a Brazil or an Argentina… Could I make the argument that those [countries] because of immense pressure have more turnover, uh turmoil, often chaos…
To be fair, a reasonable window of just enough criticism may very well exist. However, these comments make me wonder if Cowherd has ever deeply reflected upon the true impact of his chosen profession. Does putting external pressure on athletes really produce a net positive result? I find it much more likely that the result is a large net negative (see New York’s sports teams). And do sports pundits actually find nobility in harping on the flaws of an athlete, when the athlete is very well aware? Pundits will be pundits, but it is tragic to believe that one brings something far more special to the table compared to what one has. Just because you have a bullhorn, doesn’t mean you should use it for every itchy whim. Instead of anything honorable, all the excoriating pundit does is act as a focal point for the frustrations of the masses which will end up leading to an insufferable hysteria like it does in every other arena of American sports.
I get that criticizing people who do not perform up to their standards is a natural thing to do. Similarly, the fan equivalent of booing his or her own player is a natural release valve for short term frustrations, at least from the spectator’s perspective. From the player’s perspective, it is often a destroyer of whatever threadbare confidence he or she may have had left, but don’t mind that. To think that booing is something other than a primal urge is just laughable.
And yet, as soccer catches on in the USA more and more, I will have no choice but to be happy for it. But, that doesn’t mean a part of me won’t lament the lost innocence of a different time, when golden silence governed the airwaves and dreadful aliens remained undiscovered. In the meantime, I will try as best I can to cherish the time now, the time before it took the plunge into the gravity-sucking abyss stretching out before us.